In the latest Palestinian uprising, the greatest accomplishment has been to demonstrate the actuality of liberation.
JERUSALEM — May 14, 2018: Donald Trump keeps his promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognizes a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Palestinian Authority's call to action results in nothing but a few performative protests and anemic marches in the streets of Ramallah. There's a small demonstration outside the new embassy building where Zionist leftists beat their drums and call for the end of the occupation.
For them, the occupation refers solely to the territory their state grabbed in 1967. You can almost see tears of nostalgia welling up as they remember the state before June 1967 — a youthful state epitomizing socialist and democratic values, a refuge for the world's Jews (never mind the institutional racism against Arab Jews). The memory is too beautiful to be tarnished by the 18 years of military rule over those Palestinians whom Zionist militias were unable to expel. A state of kibbutzim and trade unions, the Sabra, and the declaration of independence, one whose image is too pure to be sullied by a few massacres (the massacre of Kafr Qasim was simply a technical error), or the plunder of Palestinian lands sanctioned by the Supreme Court of Israel — the same court whose independence was lauded by Hannah Arendt in her book about Adolf Eichmann's trial.
Like the Palestinian Authority, these Zionist leftists fear the death of the two-state dream. But can something die if it never lived? Their Palestine and that of the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not have space for refugees and their right of return.
Workers use tools to break parts of a building, damaged by last month's Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip — Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press
May 14, 2018: Refugees in Gaza approach the fence that separates them from the forbidden part of Palestine, between it and them the distance of a stone's throw and the sniper's bullet. Their chants are an attempt to remind the land of its owners before their bodies are pierced by lead. Their Palestine extends from the river to the sea. They turned out and gave their lives for the right of return, not because the US embassy was moved from one city in occupied Palestine to another. It's the same sky over Sheikh Muwannis, Manshiya, and Jerusalem; the sea in Gaza and Yafa is the same sea.
June 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu is on the verge of formally annexing the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian and international human rights organizations appeal to the European Union to stop what they call an unprecedented development. The PA raises the alarm and Israeli intelligence agencies warn of possible unrest. But it is only the officials hunkered down in the PA headquarters in the statelet of Ramallah who are troubled. They, along with liberal Zionists, worried about Israel's reputation, while the Europeans clung to the two-state myth and the directors of NGOs scrambled to meet in their digital conference halls of Zoom. Netanyahu suspends the formal annexation. But the de facto annexation marches on, implemented through mass home demolitions, daily army and settler attacks on Palestinian farmers, military orders, and plans to build new bypass roads. All of this is routine. No cause for undue concern, it doesn't merit newspaper headlines and doesn't change the rules of the game. It allows the fiction of "Israel proper" to persist.
Why didn't Palestinians rise up against formal annexation or the relocation of the embassy? Some people attributed it to a deep despair among Palestinians, their sense of powerlessness and futility after decades of losing battles and hijacked intifadas. Others said it was because the Palestinian cause is dead, forsaken by its champions. This explanation is appealing to the proponents of normalization. How can they be asked to care about a cause that has been abandoned by its own people?
But Palestinians' refusal to respond to the PA's appeals tells us more about that authority's failure to mobilize the public. Palestinians are not automatons that turn on with the press of a button and fall silent with a kick.
At the time, some people spoke of the mounting anger and daily acts of silent resistance as leading to a possible explosion. Talk about everyday resistance that precedes an uprising may seem like a form of consolation or a grasp at hope, but recent years have given us two examples of activism in Jerusalem that show the city has not yet lost its capacity to stand up. We recall that Jerusalem rose up after settlers set young Mohammed Abu Khdeir on fire in Shuafat in 2014, when neighborhoods and towns in Jerusalem slipped the occupation's leash. We remember the popular resistance during the 2014 war, which reached its peak on Laylat al-Qadr at Al-Aqsa Mosque, when demonstrators and worshippers turned it into a night of clashes with police occupation forces, taking revenge for the blood spilled in Gaza.
We remember the battle of the metal detectors in July 2017, when after a two-week sit-in at Lions' Gate, Jerusalemites forced the occupation authorities to remove the detectors and open Huta Gate to worshippers. These brief uprisings came without warning; no one forecast them and the PA didn't raise any alarm. In fact, the PA's lack of influence in Jerusalem might explain its people's ability to take action and fight the occupation.
The occupation authority did not deal with these two sudden eruptions as exceptional events, understanding that the murder of Abu Khdeir and the installment of metal detectors had lit the fuse but not created the fire. Accordingly, its response combined naked repression with policies of containment, "Israelization," and the erasure of young Jerusalemites' Palestinian identity. While intelligence and police agencies surveil, arrest, punish, and summarily execute, the occupation municipality — its community centers and schools, and the national insurance institute — pump money and resources into the city to forge a generation shorn of its identity, preoccupied with individual salvation and assimilation into the Israeli labor market.
It's a delicate balance. In the interstices between displacement and Israelization, between slow strangulation and containment, contradictions emerge, reflecting the colonial apparatus's confused approach to a people it considers a surplus of an unwanted demographic — or as the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Abba Eban put it, "arsenic," which can only be absorbed by the human body in very limited quantities.
Jerusalem has taught us many lessons.
The occupation authorities confiscate Jerusalemites' land to build Jewish settlements, settler roads, the annexation wall and national parks. They deny them building permits then demolish their homes for building illegally, or force them to demolish their homes themselves. They keep a tight grip on Palestinian neighborhoods, targeting recalcitrant ones with arrests and raids. They mobilize their bureaucracy to strip Palestinian Jerusalemites of their residency and apply their laws to expel Palestinians from their homes and replace them with settlers. They isolate Jerusalemites from their natural ties to the outskirts of the city and the West Bank and levy back-breaking taxes. They take action to suppress any Palestinian political, cultural or social initiatives outside of the occupation's control.
But none of these policies have eradicated the "Palestinian arsenic" from Jerusalem, where they comprise some 40% of the population. Hence the intense focus on the policies of Israelization and containment — a recent prominent manifestation being the decision by the Israeli Interior Ministry to facilitate the acquisition of Israeli citizenship for some 20,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites between the ages of 18 and 21. (This is the same Interior Ministry that has stripped thousands of Jerusalemites of their permanent residency in the city because their "center of life" lies outside Jerusalem, the same ministry that threatens Jerusalemite activists and their families with the loss of residency as a punitive measure.)
Palestinians at Gaza city organize a Palestinian flags march in solidarity with the city of Jerusalem —Photo: Mahmoud Khattab/Quds Net News/ZUMA
But Jerusalem has taught us many lessons. One of these is that a small stone thrown in still water is enough to create a wave, and this wave has been rippling out since the first days of Ramadan. Those who threw the first stone were young people targeted by Israelization, a process designed to divorce them from their emancipatory and national causes, to persuade them that politics is just a headache, and to teach them — in schools and community centers run by the Jerusalem municipality — to be upstanding citizens so they can live in prosperity.
All of these ideas appear to have come crashing down when the occupation authorities closed the gate to their city — Damascus Gate — with barriers and barricades on the first day of Ramadan. Young Palestinians stood up to occupation forces with stones, their faces bared, forcing the police to withdraw, and then set about dismantling the barriers themselves.
This sudden eruption could have died down the day the barriers were removed or when the occupation municipality sent some munshids (Islamic chanters) to try and restore "calm" and "the Ramadan atmosphere" to Damascus Gate. The influential local elite might have protested that these were nothing more than skirmishes led by apolitical hoodlums not motivated by any nationalist scruples, but simply looking to make trouble and pass the time. But what began at Damascus Gate spread to Sheikh Jarrah, fuelling and fusing with the struggle of families there threatened with displacement, turning Sheikh Jarrah into the focal point for Jerusalemites and Palestinians generally.
A new form of protest began to grow in Sheikh Jarrah, entirely different from the usual scene in the neighborhood over the last decade. Protestors directly engaged with occupation police and settlers, first by chanting and raising the Palestinian flag and then by defying brutal police attacks and attempts to disperse demonstrations with stones and more chants. We will stay right here khawa, as Jerusalemites say, which means "in your face" or "despite your best efforts." And in Jerusalem, khawa is a way of life.
Palestinians continued their evening demonstrations in Jerusalem khawa, undeterred by the machinery of oppression or the closure of the entrances to Sheikh Jarrah. They spoiled the Zionist celebration of Jerusalem Day, which marks the "reunification" of the city, and khawa they forced the cancellation of the march in the Old City. They barricaded themselves inside Al-Aqsa Mosque and stood up to bullets and tear gas khawa. Khawa, too, they chanted the name of Mohammed Deif in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa courtyard, and they cheered after the warning sirens sounded and the rockets of the resistance fell on Jerusalem. Khawa they fight to reclaim their city, and this act of reclamation is a slap in the face of everyone who imagined that the process of containment and Israelization had succeeded in breaking this generation.
This does not mean that the projects of Israelization and pacification led by occupation authorities are not a danger or are destined to fail. The occupation knows this is a long process and is betting on a lack of staying power and selective memory, as well as on local leaders who will try to hijack or circumvent the movement. Whatever the outcome of this new uprising, there can be no doubt that the occupation will launch a campaign of arrests and overt and covert intimidation of Palestinian Jerusalemites.
We used to imagine the moment of liberation, but this uprising has shown us that we ourselves may experience it.
More dangerous than repression, however, will be the expanding scope of Israeli community centers and the growing reach of Israeli institutions into our lives. The current uprising and the social networks it is giving rise to, and the mutual support and solidarity generated by demonstrations can constitute a defensive line against future attempts at Israelization. But this line can be broken unless it is supported by organized grassroots action that builds on the gains that have been and will be made during this current uprising.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment thus far has been to demonstrate the actuality of liberation. In contrast to just a few months ago, the question of liberation is no longer one for our grandchildren, but for us, for our generation. We used to imagine the moment of liberation, but this uprising has shown us that we ourselves may experience it; it could be us who come face to face with it, hear it, and breathe it.
The moment young people removed the barriers at Damascus Gate and thousands burst out in chants and cries of "God is great" was a moment of liberation. The day Jerusalemites prevented thousands of settlers from storming Al-Aqsa Mosque to celebrate Jerusalem Day was a day of liberation. The day Palestinians staged a general strike from the river to the sea was a day of liberation. This uprising, which began at Damascus Gate and then moved to Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, Haifa, Lydd, Gaza and Bira, announces a severance with despair and shows that liberation is closer than we had thought.
*Budour Hassan is a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem who writes about politics, the environment, feminism and disability.